How to Get Good Service in a Busy Bar

Another year is about to come to an end, and New Year’s Eve, that most amateurish of amateur nights, is upon us.  Many of you will have the sense to stay out of the bars, and attend house parties or ring in the new year at home with friends and/or loved ones, far and away the safest, smartest, and, to this cranky old curmudgeon, most enjoyable thing to do on a night when the whole fking world likes to come out and get stupid.  But I understand that I do not represent the mainstream view on the biggest party night of the year.  That for many going out and painting the town red is both desirable and the done thing, that the madding crowds, the turbulent sea of celebrants washing against the bar in wave after wave to negotiate their social lubrication are in fact a source of attraction.  To those folks I’d like to offer some insight into the lives and experience of those harried souls on the other side of that negotiation, that you might use that knowledge to the benefit of all involved (but especially you).

The first thing you have to understand is this: for the staff, this is the worst night of the year, rivaled only by St. Patrick’s Day for biggest shitshow and highest douchebag-to-cool person ratio among the customers.  Even the money isn’t that good, not for what it costs you to earn it, anyway.  So a basic understanding that the bartender and the server and the door guy and the manager are having literally the opposite of your experience is helpful.  I’ve worked bars where the crowd at the bar was ten across and two or three deep from nine-thirty til the lights went up and the clock on the wall said go, and every one of them wanted to be next.  Even for someone who’s done it half a thousand times, it’s stressful as hell, and while you try and be as fair as possible getting to people, you find yourself making decisions about whose turn it is and who gets expedited service and who gets ignored til there’s literally no one else who wants a drink.

Here are some things you can do to be that person who gets helped quicker, who as a result gets to spend more time dancing and carousing and enjoying time with friends old and new instead of waiting in line for a drink because the bartender doesn’t like or remember you.

1) Establish a personal rapport.  This isn’t tricky, and doesn’t take a lot of time.  Ask how their night’s going, comment on the madness, say thanks for being on shift so you can have fun tonight.  Just recognize their situation, their basic personhood.  First impressions matter, and there’re plenty of folks who think the answer to “How’s it going?” is “Gin and tonic.”  Who would you rather deal with?

2) Know what you want, and keep it simple.  A busy bar is not the place to order three-step cocktails, which slow everything down for everybody.  Having a round of shots?  Everyone have the same thing, so the bartender can make them all at once.  Every second counts for a busy bartender.  Demand constantly exceeds the logistical capacity of supply.  So know what you want.  If you’re ordering for a group, know what everyone wants, and say it all at once.  It’s maddening to have to go back to the same group three and four times when twenty or thirty pairs of eyes are following your every move, so help me out by being ready to order when your turn comes up and ready to pay when I’m done making it.

3) Pay in cash, at least on the first round.  You can open a tab with a card after that if you want, but the more rounds you settle in cash, the more I’m going to like you.  Running a card adds a whole layer of effort and complication to things, and is much slower than a cash transaction.  Nights like NYE, the system for processing transactions gets overloaded sometimes, slowing things down even further.  Running the same card more than once is especially onerous, though the ill effects can be obviated (see below).

4) Tip well, even gratuitously, especially on the first round.  I once had a guy come up to me early in the evening on New Year’s, before things had really gotten going.  He bought a round, and he handed me sixty bucks to be next in line whenever he came up to the bar.  I gave him a piece of paper with the words “I rock!” written on it and the guy didn’t wait more than two minutes for a drink the rest of the night, which was balls-to-the-wall crazy from about twenty minutes after that until we turned up the lights and kicked everyone out.  Now, this is an extreme example, and I’m not saying you need to make such a gratuitous gesture (though it is a baller move).  But by the time things work up to full swing, literally every second of my time is valuable, and I’m going to allocate it in the way most advantageous to me and conducive to the general good time (a function of the total number of drinks I’m able to make/sell, and the rate at which I’m able to do so).  Throwing down thirty, fifty, even a hundred percent on the first round is something I’m going to remember, and when I’m staring out at the sea of thirsty faces and picking who’s next, I’m going to pick the person who gets it over the guy who makes me run a card every round and tips ten percent.  You don’t have to do it all night.  I’m generally good with twenty or twenty-five percent of your total bill by night’s end.  But let me know early you’re going to take care of me, and I’ll know all night that you’re worth taking care of.

5) Be cool.  If you’ve done all of the above, you don’t have to shout or wave to get my attention.  If you’re at the bar I’ll be keeping track of you, and I’ll see you when you come up if you’re not.  Just make eye contact.  We can do most of what we need to do without talking, especially if you’re consistently drinking the same thing all night.  I’ll remember who you are, what you’re having, how you’re paying, because you’ve let me know that it’s worth devoting the bandwidth to doing so.  I’ll get you taken care of and on your way lickety-split, and you can go back to having a good time with your friends.  Everybody wins.

*     *     *

There are a lot of reasons people work in the Industry.  The money’s not bad, and it’s a classic way for folks to earn a living while pursuing an education or avocation or just earn some extra money to party with or travel on.  It can be really fun sometimes.  But it’s taxing psychologically, and the only people who survive for long have a certain quality in common.  We genuinely enjoy showing good people a good time.  It’s our contribution to society, and the psychological coin in which we’re paid, that counterbalances the condescension and abuse that is also regularly heaped on us by the many miserable and mean-spirited people in this world.  Really busy nights, especially the dumb-tastic shit-show nights like New Year’s, it’s literally impossible to give most people the service they want.  Every second of time, every iota of effort is spoken for many times over.  But I still want to take care of good people.  I want to reward people who get it, not only because I believe it right and just to do so, but because I like doing it.

There isn’t much of a trick to being that person, or at least acting like them.  It might cost a bit extra, but what you’ll get is more than worth it.  I’ll get to you faster, pour you heavier.  I might even buy you a drink.  I’ll make you look good in front of persons of interest or run interference with their opposites.  When you’re ready to go, I’ll settle you out expeditiously so you can be on your way.  It’s even possible our mutual kindness and admiration will cause some ripple of goodness and light in the aethosphere that will make the world a better place in some small and immeasurable way.  Either way, we’ll both have a better night for it.

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